Iran holds the key to democracy in the Middle East. It is geographically located in the heart of one of the world’s most volatile regions. Transition in Lebanon, progress in Israel/Palestine, attempts to foster democracies in Iraq and Afghanistan, and democratization in Ukraine are all contributing to the spread of democratic ideals in the region and chipping away at the foundations of autocratic rule. Iran—a country of strategic, political, and economic importance to the region—has the potential to drastically change the Middle East, for, in much of the twentieth century, it has been the bellwether state for the region. This change will only take place, however, if some form of democratic opposition remains active in Iran. With the hard-liners taking back the Majles (parliament) in February 2004, and the presidency in June 2005, reformists have effectively been eradicated from the government, leading many to ask whether the political resistance in Iran is dead or alive.
With the departure of President Khatami after eight years, it is almost impossible to avoid looking back on the hopes and promises first fostered and then dissipated by his election in 1997. The stunning results of the election, and the victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, an unknown hard-liner, make even more urgent the question of what went wrong. On the surface, it appears that the hard-liners have monopolized power and entrenched themselves; it seems as if Iran has moved backward and been permanently derailed off the road to democratization. The population seems dangerously depoliticized and appears to have lost its desire to resist politically. There is some truth to all of this, but it does not tell the full story. The reality beneath this facile surface is that the economy is in shambles, the government lacks legitimacy, corruption is endemic, high unemployment has become chronic, and the pseudo-totalitarian rule of a small number of unelected mullahs is increasingly challenged by the populace and even by elements within the regime itself. As the bitter presidential election showed, there is now a serious rift in the ranks of the ruling clergy, and such rifts have always been one of the necessary preconditions for a transition to democracy in any despotic society.
The social and political advancement brought about by the popular expression in the 1997 and 2001 presidential elections is not a sunk cost, and neither is the nearly 70 percent of the electorate who in the recent presidential elections in effect voted against the status quo. Although Iranians take to the streets less frequently than in the past, the growing recognition both inside Iran and in the international community is that the Iranian people are the regime’s greatest vulnerability. The population is young, pro-Western, freedom loving, and anti-regime. Although they are not politically active in the traditional sense, the people harbor sentiments that place them further from the regime than has ever been the case in the history of the Islamic Republic. The regime’s control of the population is based on a superficial allegiance held together by a combination of coercion and bribing-cum-patronage.
The result is that the Iranian domestic situation is more precarious than it appears on the surface. Although the overt political aspects of resistance are diminishing, Iranians are resisting as much now as they have in previous periods of the Islamic Republic. That resistance, however, no longer appears in traditional forms of oppositional activity, such as massive political demonstrations and an organized opposition. Instead, it often manifests itself in the form of a “passive revolution,” a widespread social resistance that, given its methodology of engaging in activities that are antithetical to the regime’s values, is political in and of itself. Therefore, rather than becoming depoliticized, the Iranian population has experienced a transformation in how it channels its opposition to the regime. The people have become strategic, seeking change through the gradual process of civil disobedience rather than reformist legislation. Although there are promising aspects of the “Passive Revolution,” it alone will not produce regime change, transformative reform, or a transition to democracy in Iran.
The Roots of Traditional Depoliticization
Before examining the impact of Iran’s passive revolution, we must first understand what factors are responsible for the shift away from traditional political resistance. One important and obvious fact about Iran is that the people are growing more detached from the regime and its ideology. They recognize, however, that the mullahs are still in control, that the regime is brutal and still capable of violence, and finally that the opposition has yet to offer a viable alternative or a cogent leadership. Students openly speak out against the regime, but when you ask them if they are willing to take to the streets, they back down and explain that they cannot and will not risk life and limb.
This apparent depoliticization is the result of three different factors. First, Iranians have become more afraid to resist. Despite the fact that people continue to want change, many high-profile arrests, disappearances, and known cases of extrajudicial murder of opposition figures—one opposition figure has suggested more than 80 such deaths have occurred in the last few years alone—have terrorized them. They are unable to assemble and oppose the regime legally, and they lack the freedom or leadership to do so covertly. The regime has made the price of such resistance far higher than many people are, understandably, willing to pay.
Second, the Iranian people are experiencing a loss of hope brought on by the failure of the reformist movement to meet even the minimal expectations of the people. In 1997, most Iranians felt as if change and democracy were at the tips of their fingers, having seen their pressure finally producing forward-moving returns. But the mood began to change in July 1999, when 25,000 students at the University of Tehran demonstrated against the banning of a reformist newspaper. Riots began after Tehran police forcibly entered one of the university hostels. During the protests, students chanted “Khamanei must quit” and “Ansare Hezbollah commits crimes and the leader backs them.” The riots spread to eight other cities and resulted in the death of one student at the University of Tehran. The reformists, notably President Khatami, failed to stand by the students, a gesture that would come to symbolize the “betrayal” of the people by the reformists. Even more disheartening was that Khatami refused to attend that year’s opening of the University of Tehran, a function he normally would attend. Thus, the population as a whole began to question whether the reformists had their interests in mind or whether they were simply another manipulative tool of the theocratic establishment. Similar events over the next five years exacerbated the growing rift between the reformists and their constituency base—particularly the students. In fact, some people have come to dislike the reformist movement even more than the regime, arguing that “while the regime is bad, at least it didn’t bring false hope.”
Third, and perhaps most important, the combination of hard-liner monopolization of power and the loss of popular support for the reform movement has left the people without an ally inside the existing establishment in Iran. Without any force inside the government to protect their actions or serve as a body susceptible to popular pressure, the majority of the population no longer sees the potential for political resistance to elicit a favorable outcome. The presidential election of June 2005 now puts all three branches of the government—as well as the armed forces, the media, and a big part of the national economy—in the hands of hard-line conservatives.
The Passive Revolution
Given this apparent depoliticization of the Iranian population, what is happening inside Iran? Although outwardly the Iranian people seem to be
losing the desire to resist, there are many signs of their willingness, indeed eagerness, to participate in the passive revolution and resistance. The Iranian youth, in particular, have made the calculation that because resisting politically risks life and limb and rarely produces any positive results, they will engage in massive and widespread social resistance. Women, despite the regime’s constant attempt to segregate them from society, are leading this revolution, whose main characteristic is that the Iranian people will love anything their government hates and hate anything their government loves.
The United States—the quintessential example of something the regime hates—has become a symbol of hope for the social resistance. The United States is loved by the people because they see it as the only country in the world that has seriously stood up to the Islamic regime and its bullying. The admiration one experiences in Iran as an American is magnificent: Taxi drivers will sometimes not charge you because you are American, students may prevent you from taking photos of anti-American propaganda, and students openly express a love for President Bush. The disenchantment with the reformists has led Iranians to fill the vacuum by embracing American culture as a symbol of freedom, liberty, and hope.
The youth, having created innovative ways to meet members of the opposite sex, engage in wild parties with alcohol, gambling, and premarital romance. In the evenings, some Iranian youth hold drag races down the long straightaways of Jordan Street in downtown Tehran. Despite bans on most movies and records, Iranian youth still manage to acquire pirated or black market American DVDs and CDs. They do not get their news from the state-run television or radio but from CNN, Voice of America, and Radio Israel.
These acts of social defiance are driven by two motivations: first, the desire for greater individual liberty and, second, a means for expressing defiance of the regime. Following on the heels of the hard-liners’ decision to manipulate the election process, particularly the first run of the presidential election, and the surprise victory of the virtually unknown Ahmadinejad, the Iranian people have found new, more private ways in which to embrace their individuality under a pseudo-totalitarian regime.
The most effective means for group expression in this passive revolution is through what we call virtual association. Although the population cannot associate freely, unspoken movements and aspects of the social resistance transcend the need for physical organization, good examples of which are scarves and Western clothing. Women do not meet with one another and decide to Westernize their clothes or to wear brightly colored scarves far back on their heads as expressions of defiance. It happens naturally. These virtual associations threaten the regime because there is no leadership, network, or covert movement to crack down on. Instead, virtual association operates above the grid of clerical despotism.
Chat rooms and bloggers—Iran has more than 75,000 bloggers—have become another favorite form of virtual resistance to the regime and its austere politics.
How the Regime Is Combating the Passive Revolution
The government, recognizing its unpopularity and the demographic challenges posed by an unusually young population, prioritizes staying in power and keeping its people silent, demobilized, and censored. This is the chief goal of both its foreign and domestic policies. Because the regime is focused on staying in power, its foreign policy is focused less on international objectives and the country’s true national interests and more on bolstering its control over the country through its international image and actions.
Thus, the mullahs have mastered crafting foreign policy issues to effect changes at home. Nowhere is this clearer than with the nuclear issue. Although the mullahs want the bomb for their own self-preservation, they are using the nuclear issue to capitalize on Iranian pride, and most of the population seems to support the idea of Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Newspapers and speeches by the Iranian government refer to a “right to master this technology” and a “need to advance the sciences.” Given the sense of pride that is so deeply embedded in Iranian culture, it is not surprising that, when presented in this manner, the population is sold on the idea. People often do not understand, however, that nuclear technology will lead to nuclear weapons and only further consolidate the regime in power. The mullahs want to follow the North Korean example: deterring regime change by possessing nuclear capabilities. In talking with Iranian youth, when the question of Iran’s nuclear program was described not in terms of “national pride” and Iran’s rights under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty but instead in terms of what a nuclear Iran will mean for the longevity of the mullahs, they became almost unanimously opposed to the idea.
By galvanizing the Iranian people behind issues of national pride, the regime has won the propaganda war on the nuclear issue. In fact, the nuclear question has become the sole issue around which it has successfully mobilized mass support. As a result, that issue has become too valuable an asset for the regime to forfeit on terms other than its own.
The regime’s second means of undermining the passive revolution in Iran is allowing certain social acts of defiance to persist so as to ensure a usable arsenal of concessions that can be withdrawn if the population gets too politicized. Two examples of these are the Westernization of head scarves and the high prevalence of illegal satellite dishes. The government looks the other way until the population begins to take to the streets or becomes too political; then the government often tightens its control on female attire and confiscates satellite dishes.
Conclusion: Implications of the Passive Revolution
It is no secret that the United States would surely prefer an alternative regime in Iran, an ambitious and challenging goal in and of itself. The United States possesses few assets inside Iran, making it difficult to construct a cohesive strategy. The one asset the United States does possess is the 70 percent of the population who are under the age of 30 and who seem overwhelmingly supportive of both the United States and President Bush. Past experience in other despotic societies has shown that at the right moment—a “tipping point,” which is a mystery in its timing and which no one can predict—the passive revolution will become active, and at that moment, the sentiments of this 70 percent, if they have continued to be nourished, will be the greatest asset the United States could have in helping shape a democratic future for Iran.